Public Speaking, Political Commentary, Teaching, Consulting
“When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.” Or, as it is more commonly stated, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. – Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion 1687 Sparked by
The Baltimore Rebellion and Newton's Third Law of Motion
By Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III
the not so mysterious April 19th death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore police, citizens of West Baltimore and other outside agitators took to the streets in yet another seemingly endless display of urban unrest. Reporters from mainstream media outlets such as CNN are unable to place the unrest in any substantive historical context. “I don’t remember seeing anything like this in the United States of America in a long time” — @wolfblitzer and CNN’s Don Lemon refuses to engage in any substantive analysis of the basis of the outrage in Baltimore. He prefers to simply state, “…the city is burning because someone in essence set it on fire.”
Let’s try to use what we do know to figure out what it is that we “don’t” know. A 25 year old Baltimore man named Freddie Gray made eye contact with a police officer and took off running. Gray was pursued by the police. There is no known video of the pursuit. There is video of a handcuffed Gray being lifted to his feet, seemingly unable to walk and screaming in pain. He is dragged by police to a van and placed into it by the police because it appears that he is unable to get into it under his own power.
The West-Dyson Exchange; Less Personal Animus More Policy Analysis
In response to Dr. Cornel West’s public criticisms of individuals such as Rev. Sharpton, Melissa Harris Perry, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and others (especially President Obama); Dyson published his personal response entitled The Ghost of Cornel West. In this more than 10,000 word diatribe Dyson simply engages a very personal venomous attack towards West.
The primary difference between the two is that West’s attacks though personal at times are based upon principled fundamental problems with Obama administration policy. He is opposed to the use of drones, warrantless wiretapping, the militarization of America’s police force and the focus on saving “banksters” at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. While Dyson, in his very eloquent piece does exactly what he accuses West of doing, Dyson’s “…narcissism in this matter is not exemplified by his sense of being jilted but in the way he has personalized his grief…”West calls these individuals to task, in public forums in a very personal nature for what he believes is their failure to hold the Obama administration accountable for “Change We Can Believe In” and a more “transparent government”. For the most part West believes that President Obama is more “Bush than Bush”. Dyson simply attacks West as a man who has “…followed a pronounced and decades-long scholarly decline…” Dyson’s critique is long on personal animus and vacuous in substantive policy critique and analysis.
By Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III
Dyson should have spent some of the 10,000 words explaining why West’s analysis is wrong (and not to say that it is) instead of complaining and bemoaning the fact that he does not appreciate West’s tenor, tone, and choice of language.
Recently in The Root, Todd Steven Burroughs wrote an analysis of this issue entitled Before Dyson and West: Remembering Black Luminaries’ ‘Rap Battles’ in which Burroughs equates this recent dust-up with famous debates between DuBois and Garvey, James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and others. There are some stark differences between the Dyson/West issue and some of those referenced by Burroughs.
In most of the conflicts referenced by Burroughs, activists, thought creators and true intellectuals were publicly debating their assessments of the issues facing the African American community and the Black diaspora and the solutions to addressing the problems. As DuBois stated, “…the world problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line-the question of the relation of the advanced races of men who happened to be white to the great majority of the undeveloped or half-developed nations of mankind who happen to be yellow, brown or black…” It was then and still is. West is questioning American domestic and foreign policy as it relates to poor people around the world. Dyson is merely questioning West’s troublesome choice of language.
In his piece Burroughs conspicuously omits the DuBois/Washington debate. Both men’s positions were understandable based upon their own perceptions of reality. DuBois born free in the North. Washington born into slavery in the South. It was also a more industrial vs. agricultural mentality. Just look at how DuBois opens Darkwater, “I was born by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Compare this to Washington’s Up From Slavery, “I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time.” It’s easy to understand how these two giants could develop different solutions to the same problem. Dyson offers no analysis or solutions in his critique of West.
Burroughs references the DuBois/Garvey, DuBois/NAACP and Malcolm X vs. The Nation of Islam debates. All of these are great examples of true ideological conflicts within our community but I cannot see how this current Dyson/West issue rises to this level. Dyson/ West is ideology and analysis vs. personal issues with language.
In his analysis of the Dyson/West conflict Burroughs makes reference to the Baraka/Steele “debate”. That’s not really relevant or fair. That was not a substantive debate between equals. Amiri Baraka was an activist and great intellectual who made tremendous contributions to our movement, culture and literature. Shelby Steele is a writer who contributes to a simple conservative narrative that is designed for media consumption.
The bigger issue that this Dyson/West “debate” brings to light is the inability of too many in the African American community to tolerate, let alone engage in, substantive policy analysis and critique of the Obama administration at the policy output level. As a body politic, interest group, or collective, more people in the community should abandon the politics of personality and the politics of pigment and do some substantive critique and analysis of policy and policy outcome? We should start asking some of those in leadership and in the media, are you bringing the message of the people to the administration like King did with Johnson and Kennedy; as Randolph did with Roosevelt and Douglas with Lincoln or bringing the message of the administration to the people?
If it’s the latter, maybe Dr. West is right. Don’t get distracted by all this banter about the language; focus on the analysis.